Why inquiry-based learning is so valuable right now

Inquiry-based learning helps pupils to understand concepts and apply topics to real-life contexts, says Emily Hardwicke

Emily Hardwicke

Why inquiry-based learning is so powerful

A child’s innate curiosity is perhaps most obvious in early years settings.

But, for me, when I find sparks of it in the world-weary secondary-age students I teach, that’s where the rewards of inquiry-based learning can really be magical. 

Moving to China after five years teaching at a challenging state school on a Greater London estate, I was struck by the difference in the experiences of the two groups of students and the ways they contextualised their learning.

While their sense of curiosity was unchanged by location, the most glaring contrast was the fact that my international students were far more inclined to draw on a global understanding of the world and an awareness of relevant context.

I mention this because I believe whole-heartedly that students need context, content and knowledge in order for inquiry-based learning to work effectively.

Why do we need inquiry-based learning now?

Sometimes called "active learning" – because students are heavily involved in asking questions, problem-solving, researching and investigating – an inquiry-based approach is hugely important as students grapple with a rapidly evolving world.

Being able to leave school with not only knowledge but also the ability to do something with it is incredibly important.

Students need to be skilled in transferring what they know in order to be empowered to take control of their own learning and discover meaning for themselves.  

I teach the International Baccalaureate and one thing I like about this is that it takes a holistic approach to learning and states that “whereas traditional curriculum frameworks have usually described the curriculum in terms of a body of knowledge only, the MYP (Middle Years Programme) views the curriculum as meeting the needs of the whole person”. 

Because of this, there is more focus on “the understanding of concepts, the mastery of skills and the development of attitudes that can lead to considered and appropriate action”.

Topic versus concept

A traditional curriculum tends to be topic-based; for example, requiring a geography student to identify geographic features in a region or understand how these features impact on the development of culture. The assumption is that content equals knowledge.

A conceptual-based curriculum, on the other hand, aims for student understanding. By using inquiry-based guiding questions, (Why do cultures use land differently? How is culture affected by its geography?), facts and skills are interwoven with concepts leading to generalisations or principles that underpin learning.

Providing a foundation in the form of a "big idea" allows students to develop intellectual depth by enabling them to explore different factual and conceptual levels of inquiry. 

The skill of "transferring" knowledge then begins to feel much more natural and starts to happen with greater flexibility. Students see patterns in their learning and can make connections between facts and ideas rather than seeing them as stuck in the context in which they learned them.

This type of "synergistic thinking" is the IB dream and an inquiry-based approach allows this way of teaching of learning to thrive. In essence, as an IB teacher, you are aiming to make learning applicable and relatable, and use concepts and global contexts to ensure knowledge is relevant to your students and the world they live in.

A lofty aim perhaps, but a no-brainer when you consider that this approach:

• Increases motivation for learning.

• Requires a higher level of creative and critical thinking.

• Teaches students how to see patterns and connections between facts and ideas, as well as facilitating the transfer of knowledge.

• Provides relevant focus for the study of subject knowledge and content.

Inquiry in the classroom

Recently, in English lessons, we introduced Year 9 to the concept of propaganda techniques, contextualising our learning through reading The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak and set during the Second World War.

Collaborating with history, we then developed an inquiry-based learning project where students researched and explored propaganda in the form of historical sources such as posters, Nazi-influenced board games and public service announcements. 

A new context was then introduced, as students started to explore the techniques that modern-day politicians may use to influence an audience (as an English teacher I am really going to miss Donald Trump!). 

Finally, the students drew all of this knowledge together in order to create their own presidential campaigns, collaborating, cooperating, demonstrating their media literacy skills and delegating tasks, in order to meet a specific deadline when they presented the different components they had been working on. 

It was fun, it required active participation from everyone and, most importantly, it allowed students to transfer the knowledge they had gained from two different subject disciplines and apply it in a real-world context.

What you want your students to know and what you want them to understand are sometimes two different things, but an inquiry-based approach can often help you to do both. 

And, more fundamentally, the development of holistic learners who are more appreciative of learning for learning’s sake is surely the ultimate achievement for any teacher?

Emily Hardwicke is assistant head (lower school), MYP coordinator and head of English at an international school in Switzerland

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories

Revisions Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 26/2

Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 26/2

A one-stop shop for teachers who want to know what impact the ongoing pandemic will have on their working lives.
Tes Reporter 26 Feb 2021